When Project SEARCH interns enter the National Institutes of Health campus in Bethesda, Md., they are immediately recognizable—from their matching, sky-blue polo shirts to their smiling faces. "People know these interns," says Steve Blanks, program director at SEEC, Seeking Equality, Empowerment and Community for People with Developmental Disabilities. The local nonprofit provides community-based employment support to transitioning youth and adults. "They have quickly become part of the fabric of NIH, and that is really exciting to see."
Originally developed at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center in 1996, Project SEARCH works with hospitals and businesses in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia to provide opportunities for young adults with disabilities to learn employability skills and gain work experience. NIH's Clinical Research Center launched its Project SEARCH internship program in August 2010 as a pilot under the management of Denise Ford, chief of the Office of Hospitality Services. Now in its third year, the program has expanded beyond the Clinical Center, offering internships with other NIH institutes, including the National Cancer Institute.
The 30-week internship program at NIH draws students from SEEC and a post high school program at the Ivymount School, a special needs school in Rockville, Md.
In March 2012, NCI took on its first Project SEARCH intern in the Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences. "DCCPS is known as being a good training experience," said Stacey Vandor, planning officer for the division. "We thought this was a great way to help move the program into the mainstream at NIH." The Project SEARCH placement team members find that they have to look creatively at each department to find roles for interns. If an intern performs a task, the employee that otherwise would have done it is now free to concentrate on more pressing, higher skill-level tasks, and the office runs more efficiently. At DCCPS, this meant assigning organizational duties such as copying, shredding, mailing, filing, and label-making to its intern, Carlos.
The ultimate goal for young people participating in Project SEARCH is competitive employment. Interns work with job coaches onsite, in order to ease their transition into the workplace. And each intern is assigned a mentor within his or her department to help monitor daily tasks. "The job coaches are here to be augmenters of the natural training that would happen at the worksite," says Blanks. "These interns may need more training and development than a regular employee. The supervisor or co-worker is leading the training but getting assistance from coaches as needed." Job coaches meet with interns each morning to discuss their progress and write goals for the day. The interns are provided lessons in everything from basic computer skills to social skills and business etiquette.
Recent data from the Department of Labor Statistics indicate that 17.8 percent of disabled persons were employed in the United States in 2011, compared to 63.6 percent of persons without a disability. Eight out of 12 graduates of Project SEARCH in 2011 were hired into permanent positions at NIH, and in 2012, five out of 10 graduates have been hired. But the program does not simply aim to find jobs for interns at NIH; it seeks to build skill sets that will help the interns launch careers. "It is about growth," says Blanks. "When they start in September, there is an understanding that they may not have certain skills, but by June they will be ready to work, whether it is here at NIH or somewhere else."
At the end of their training, interns have learned far more than just on-the-job skills, but life skills necessary to most careers. "You have to be able to learn to use public transportation and have that commitment, like the hundreds of employees that come and go from your place of work every day," says Lu Merrick, director of Multiple Learning Needs for Ivymount's post high school program. "That is often a pretty scary for the parents in the beginning."
Interns are given the opportunity to take part in three individualized internships in various departments throughout their time at NIH. According to Blanks, "A lot of individuals with disabilities get pushed into jobs in the four Fs," which include food assembly, filth (janitorial work), flowers (landscaping), and factory work. "We are trying to look at more non-traditional jobs." One of the most difficult tasks in a large research institute is to help managers see a need for an intern who may only be able to perform tasks up to a certain level. Many jobs must be tailored to allow interns to feel they are making a difference. "They are not sitting there stuffing envelopes. They are not wiping off lunch trays," adds Merrick. "They really are a part of contributing to their department in a multitude of ways, many of them non-typical."
As Project SEARCH helps the NIH community rethink hiring practices and managerial strategy in many departments, it also draws attention to many of the positive practices on campus. "I don't think having a Project SEARCH intern changed our culture, but it certainly did highlight some of our better qualities as a program and as a community," says Diane Barrett, a recent Project SEARCH mentor and member of the Surveillance Research Program at DCCPS. "Learning how to work with Carlos gave our team the opportunity to demonstrate the compassion, patience, and kind nature that I believe we as an NIH community have. It was really encouraging to see such positive interactions, and ultimately, I started to think of our team in a new light."
National Institutes of Health